There is a bit of manufactured anticipation surrounding the release of the autumn squad. Fully 40 players have yet to be whittled down to a starting XV, although the inclusion of three uncapped souls, one expected, one surprise, one inbetweener, at least provided some genuine excitement.
The rangy Kiwi four/six/eight Blade Thomson was widely anticipated to join Gregor’s gang after moving to the Scarlets for the start of this season. The Chiefs’ strapping lock Sam Skinner was not.
The Exeter man is a welcome addition to a Scotland squad that, for all the progress it has made over the last five or six years, is never more than a couple of injuries shy of a crisis.
Aussie import Sam Johnson has qualified for Scotland under the (old) three-year residency rule just in time to replace the luckless Duncan Taylor. All three are thus far uncapped but Townsend highlighted another aspect that united the three new faces.
“There is a thread throughout all three players and what they bring and that’s their attacking ability,” said the coach. “Sam Johnson is a very good passer of the ball, he has a rugby league background so his running lines are excellent.
“Blade Thomson has a point of difference with his offloading, his aerial skills, whether that’s under the ball or in the lineout. He’s a very good handler of the ball. Sam Skinner is very similar, excellent running lines, ability to offload.”
Skinner’s declaration for Scotland was timely because Richie Gray is just one of several front-line players who, seven weeks into the season, are already unavailable to Townsend. He is joined in rehab by sure-fire Scotland starters Stuart Hogg, Taylor, John Barclay and Zander Fagerson. That is five of Townsend’s likely starting XV out of action with the season barely under way, together with several very useful fringe players like Mark Bennett, Tim Swinson and the fast improving Lewis Carmichael.
It is going to get worse because the workload ratchets up from here, as the players accelerate towards RWC19. In any normal 12-month period a front-line Scotland international can expect to play a maximum of 11 Tests. In the 12 months from 1 November, this Scotland squad must play 17, 18 or, should they gate-crash the World Cup semi-finals, even 20 Tests.
This is made up of four autumn Tests including the extra one against Wales that falls outside the international window, five Six Nations games, four World Cup warm-up ties, two against France, another brace against Georgia, plus another four World Cup pool matches, which takes us to 17 Tests. Presuming Scotland get to the quarter-finals, the minimum requirement, then fans will have fingers crossed for an extended run in the knockout stages.
“There’s no summer tour, so if you’re saying this season, we’re actually two Tests less than normal,” says Townsend, but his argument about seasons is largely specious since players scarcely draw breath between the close of one campaign and the pre-season beasting of the next.
“There’s an extra Test that we haven’t played [before] but other teams have regularly played that (the fourth autumn Test). Wales have done it for a number of years, England have done it for a number of years and Ireland have begun to do it over the last two or three years.
“We’re not doing anything that is different to other teams. A year ago there was a proposal for a fourth Test and at the time I thought it was something we didn’t need as an international team. Obviously we’ve decided to go down that route this year with playing a northern hemisphere team.”
Scotland’s extra fixture is probably unwanted from a rugby perspective, as Townsend suggests, but simply cannot state. It almost certainly undermines not only the integrity of the Guinness Pro14 and, far more importantly, devalues the exclusive nature of Europe’s golden goose, the Six Nations, all for a short-sighted commercial imperative, something the coach did concede.
“When the fixture was announced, you’ve got to build it into your planning,” were Townsend’s exact words. “It’s not agreed between Warren Gatland and myself, it’s agreed between the Scottish Rugby Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for the [commercial] reasons you’ve highlighted.”
Townsend also made the point that no player, in all likelihood, would play all four November Tests and many of the front-line players will be spared one or more of the warm-up matches, but that still leaves a burden of approximately 15 Tests in a 12-month period for those that remain fit and healthy.
Elsewhere, Townsend confirmed that he would consider Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, cold-shouldered by Eddie Jones last week, but only after a change of heart from the Falcon who was quoted saying some less than complimentary things about Murrayfield, thinking he was speaking off the record.
“Of course I would consider him,” replied Townsend when quizzed about Graham.
“He’s someone who has a lot of the traits we look for in a player. He’s got good work ethic, he’s tough, he’s a very good ball carrier for a seven but the competition in that area is fierce. We’ve got some very good players in that position who have missed out on this squad.
“Whether Gary will ever come back to being committed to Scotland, who knows, but I’ve not heard anything from him since that time.”
And in one final surprise, Townsend further admitted that he had not appointed anyone to captain the autumn squad as yet and intends to do so on a match by match basis.
Stuart McInally is the man in possession of the honour after fulfilling the post in Scotland’s last Test against Argentina. However Grant Gilchrist led the side successfully against Canada while Stuart Hogg pulled the short straw, captaining Scotland to their first ever defeat by the USA, although that historic loss owed more to the coach’s selection – two thirds of the team had single digit caps – than any lack of leadership from the fullback on the field.